Go back to article: Wired-up in white organdie: framing women’s scientific labour at the Burden Neurological Institute

Part II: Working wives

‘She helped to pick up the pieces’

As well as its burgeoning reputation as a centre for scientific and technological innovation, in the immediate post-war years the BNI developed something of a track-record for romantic matchmaking, as several of its laboratory partnerships blossomed into marriages. This was particularly evident in 1947, a year which saw the marriage of Janet and Harold Shipton – who celebrated their wedding at Chequers alongside most of the Attlee Labour Cabinet – as well as that of Vivian Dovey and William Grey Walter.[11] While this romantic dimension of the BNI’s history has attracted some attention (see Hayward, 2001), the exact weighting this takes in biographies of the Institute’s staff depends heavily on their gender. For instance, in the ‘official’ institutional history of the BNI, written by Cooper and Bird (1989, pp 54, 60), Walter’s romantic life is relegated to secondary ‘colour’, ranking alongside descriptions of his hobbyist interests in glider planes and deep-sea diving. Meanwhile, the only significant entry on Dovey focuses entirely on her ‘devotion’ to her husband, particularly her ability to ‘pick up the pieces’ following his involvement in a serious road accident in 1970.

Post-war documentary photographers demonstrated a consistent interest in these laboratory romances while covering stories at the BNI and similar institutions, making deliberate attempts to capture the ‘working couple’ in action. This fascination was informed by contemporary discussions about new ‘companionate’ or ‘democratic’ models of marriage in post-war Britain, a vision of matrimony attuned to the shifting realities of the labour market in which husband and wife were conceptualised as equal partners within an interdependent team, pursuing shared goals and objectives. However, as Penny Summerfield (1994, pp 59–62) and Marcus Collins (2003, pp 117–133) have proposed, the reality of the companionate marriage was often far from idyllic, as spouses struggled to reconcile new desires for equality with traditional divisions of gendered authority. This potential disruption at the heart of middle-class domestic life proved a popular topic of interest in picture magazines such as Life and Picture Post, whose photo-essays frequently sought to both explore the rising prominence of women in paid employment and public life, while also offering reassurance that these new roles would be contained within conventional expectations of domesticity, maternity and wifely duty (Kozol, 1994, pp 156–169; Solinger, 2001, pp 202–209; Gardener, 1993, pp 45–64). The laboratory couple of the BNI provided a perfect example for these kinds of stories: a ‘modern’ form of romantic collaboration that was nonetheless structured by hierarchical and strictly gendered understandings of labour.

 The BNI Papers contain two sets of photographs depicting the Walters at work in the laboratories of the Institute which neatly bookend the span of their romantic relationship (meeting in 1942, marrying in 1947, and separating in 1960). The first photograph of the pair, taken by an unnamed colleague in 1943, indicates an embryonic visual language of gendered authority that would become increasingly apparent in later depictions (see Figure 7). Considering the lack of control over the photographic field, particularly the daylight which almost entirely engulfs Dovey’s face, the photograph appears to be a hastily-arranged ‘snapshot’ for internal recording and circulation, rather than a formally-posed press image. As such, the photograph constitutes an ambiguous middle-ground, caught somewhere between a self-conscious performance of scientific labour and a candid glimpse into the practical division of laboratory work.

Figure 7

Black and white photograph of William Grey Walter and Vivian Dovey at the BNI

William Grey Walter and Vivian Dovey, c.1943.

In the photograph, Walter and Dovey stand either side of an early EEG prototype. Walter stands to the left of the shot, dressed in a neat, buttoned-up lab-coat, his right hand on his hip, his left arm draped across the machine’s metal casing. On the right stands Dovey, dressed in dark colours, with one hand resting on the EEG’s pen-writer and the other holding a tool. This relative placement of the two researchers’ bodies seemingly adheres to what sociologist Erving Goffman (1976, pp 32–37) has termed ‘function ranking’: the visual delineation of executive and supportive roles in depictions of male-female collaboration. Walter’s authority is here bolstered by his commanding posture and his cradling of the machine that he built and developed; meanwhile, Dovey’s more marginal position in the photograph and her alignment with the pen-writer emphasise her secondary role as the ‘technician’ and ‘interpreter’ to Walter’s technological creations.

While the early date, limited audience and semi-improvised staging of the photograph do not suggest any purposeful or explicit framing of the couple as romantically involved, this image nonetheless indicates towards the profound influence of domestic norms on the practical division of laboratory labour. As Clare Langhamer (2017, pp 11–12) and Pnina Abir-am and Dorinda Outram (1987, pp 10–12) have argued, this blurring of the boundaries between ‘woman’, ‘employee’, and ‘wife’ required no underlying romantic relation to function; it merely required a belief in an inherently feminine set of skills that naturally suited women to subordinate positions of technical and emotional support, both in the workplace and within the home. These conventions also demonstrated the lasting impression that domestic service left on the career trajectories of British women in the post-war period. Despite the near total collapse of the occupation that had been the major employer of British women for much of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century (declining from 41 per cent of the female workforce in 1891, to 24 per cent in 1931, and finally to around five per cent by 1951), new opportunities for work continued to be impacted by domestic service’s culture of female servitude and patriarchal authority (Delap, 2011, pp 11–12; Todd, 2005, pp 22–23, 148–149).

Looking ahead to the next two images of the Walters, a pair of more deliberately posed shots taken by photographer Brian Brake in 1956, it is revealing to see that many of the hastily arranged elements of the earlier snapshot are here formalised, extended and exaggerated to form a more clearly self-conscious language of gendered labour (see Figures 8 and 9). In many ways, Brake, whose style was influenced both by an apprenticeship as a studio portrait photographer and his later work as a documentary filmmaker with the New Zealand National Film Unit, was the ideal person to capture both the idiosyncratic intimacies and broader social relevance of the Walters’ working relationship (see Mitchell, 2010; Doss, 2001, pp 11–17). In both photographs, the pair are shown working in the operating theatre of the BNI, examining read-outs from an EEG. William Grey Walter stands, adjusting the machine’s dials, while Vivian Walter sits, eyes cast downwards, observing the readings with a pen in hand. Thus, the hierarchical distinction between male ‘brain worker’ and female ‘technician’, glimpsed in the earlier image, is here solidified through a more rigorous control of the photographic field and the bodies within it. It seems revealing that, in both images, Vivian Walter is positioned quite literally in her husband’s shadow. The one key difference, however, is Brake’s attempt to combine this depiction of labour with a sense of proximity and intimacy. Unlike the 1943 snapshot, in which the practicalities of the couple’s respective roles keep them isolated on either side of the EEG, here they are brought together in close confines. As such, Brake’s images depict the Walters’ partnership as at once personal and professional, romantic and scientific, and thus attempt to merge the realms of laboratory and domestic authority.

Figure 8

Black and white photograph of William Grey Walter and Vivian Dovey at the BNI

William Grey Walter and Vivian Walter, 1956. BURD/A/06/006, BNI. Photograph by Brian Brake

Figure 9

Black and white photograph of William Grey Walter and Vivian Dovey at the BNI

William Grey Walter and Vivian Walter, 1956. BURD/A/06/012, BNI. Photograph by Brian Brake

This domesticated framing of the female scientific worker comes into sharper relief still when compared with the very different way in which male collaborative relationships were visually presented. One illuminating example is a photograph of William Grey Walter and Ray Cooper, taken in 1964 (see Figure 10). In this image, the men look down at the readings of a 16-channel EEG: Walter sits on a stool, his hand on his chin, while Cooper stands on the opposite side, one hand on his hip and the other reaching forward to adjust the machinery. Unlike Brake’s depictions of the Walters as a working couple, the framing of this photograph instead suggests a collaborative relationship defined by mutuality and equality. Both Walter and Cooper adopt the poses of skilled ‘brain work’: Walter in the classic ‘thinking scientist’ pose, Cooper confidently engaging with the machinery in a manner which strikingly recalls the young Walter of 1943.[12] Such an image suggests that male researchers were less vulnerable to hierarchical visual framings than their female colleagues. While men were frequently coded as peers, even when, as in the case of Walter and Cooper in the 1960s, significant differences in seniority existed between them, women were far more likely to be depicted in ways that linked their skills and expertise to notions of femininity and familial duty.

Figure 10

Black and white photograph of William Grey Walter and Ray Cooper at the BNI looking at an EEG

William Grey Walter and Ray Cooper, 1964

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181003/004